The men are gone – but the patriarchy remains: the struggles of women left behind in Syria’s ‘no-man land’

Dania Kareh Fragile contexts, Gender, Women's Economic Empowerment

Years of conflict have led to thousands of men dying or being pushed away. Now, says Dania Kareh, the women who remain face a huge challenge as stubborn social, economic and educational barriers frustrate their efforts to build decent lives for their families.

Women farmworkers from Bugros, a village in Deir Ez-Zor, Syria (picture Islam Mardini/Oxfam)

As I walked the streets south of Deir Ez-Zor in East Syria, I couldn’t help but notice that women heavily outnumbered men. I was entering a ‘no-man’ land.

Like so many once-thriving places in East Syria, the towns of Bugross and Khsham are now sadly reduced to rubble – but as well as destroying the infrastructure, the cruel conflict has also devastated the male population: wiping out thousands of men and pushing away many more.

‘Women are left in an impossible situation: still held back by the old social norms and barriers of discrimination, yet now loaded with the extra burden of providing for and managing their households’

Locals told me that now up to three-quarters of the population are women because men have died in the protracted conflict, fled the country for safety – particularly during a three-year IS siege – or simply left to seek better lives abroad. The result is thousands of women and their dependents left behind to fend for themselves.

For the first time in their lives, local women and told me they find themselves responsible for a whole family. Suddenly, women in my country are heads of their families and the sole breadwinners.

No men – yet no opportunities either

Traditionally, men in these areas, whether they are fathers or husbands, brothers or sons, have held the power to make decisions on behalf of women in the family. They have chosen their life mates, their moves, what to wear and even what to cook. Young women and girls have been forced out of education, into early marriage, and robbed of opportunities to earn and participate in decision-making at any level.

As men have left their households, you might imagine such a drastic shift could be life-changing for women and girls. Yet the bleak reality is it has left them in an impossible situation: still held back by the old social norms and barriers of discrimination, yet now loaded with the extra burden of providing for and managing their households.

How can women change their reality when patriarchal norms have left them with limited skills, education and little knowledge of life outside the home? Many are still denied access to certain jobs by social norms that restrict what work a woman can do and where. Others still lack the official documents they need to participate fully in the economy and society, while many simply don’t have the means to break free from their dire work and life situation.

Even those who have managed to find a job in an exploitative job market face the tough challenge of managing their jobs alongside all the unpaid care they still have to do. 

Impossible choices for women left behind

The reality is that many women are still trapped by a social system that still assumes absolute guardianship for males over their day-to-day lives, even though they no longer have a male in their families. This has landed women with impossible choices of bearing the societal pressures they are living under, or marrying back in to a conventional life.

A widow I met in Khsham told me that widows like her are generally considered a burden. They must find a male to run their life for them. This can be a father, cousin, father-in-law, brother, a son or even a new husband. She had to marry her brother-in-law to create a safe space for herself as a widow in her community. The burden that women must endure to be dignified and accepted is a type of violence that needs end.

For some women it seems simpler to rely on humanitarian aid, rather than conform to negative gendered norms that perpetuate and sustain abuse. They want this challenging situation to change but lack the means to sustain themselves independently.

In this part of Syria, too many women now find themselves trapped by the patriarchal system that disempowered them and that failed to prepare them for their current challenges. The result is they remain trapped in hardship, or they risk falling back into old structures of oppression.

But these same women have the courage to envision a better life for themselves: they only need a little support to help themselves out of poverty, to reclaim their self-esteem, to demand what is rightfully theirs and to forge a path forward. It is time their voices were heard so they can finally have a say in shaping their reality.


Dania Kareh

Dania Kareh is media and communications officer for Oxfam in Syria

This is the latest blog in our series that started on International Women’s Day. Follow Oxfam’s #HerMoneyMatters campaign on Twitter/X and LinkedIn. And watch the recording of this Instagram Live session to mark IWD24, on ‘How to make the economy work for women’